My mother raised me to raise my voice. She raised me to believe that my voice mattered. That speaking up when I saw injustice was a part of my civic duty. To not take my position of power within my white privilege for granted but to recognize it and share it with others.
My teachers taught me I was different.
That I was too loud. Too opinionated. Too much.
That I was the bad child to be avoided.
That I needed to learn how to tone it down.
Lower my voice.
Let others speak before I added my voice.
If it wasn’t for my mother’s insistence that my voice mattered, I would have been a silent child.
A silent adult.
As I see students speak up in the aftermath of yet another horrific school shooting, I cannot help but be proud. This is why I teach the way I do. This is why I believe that what we do matters.
When we create learning communities that thrive on discussion. That thrives on student voice. That tell those we teach to speak up rather than to stay silent, this is when we are truly changing the future of this world.
So what can we as teachers do to encourage student voice? How can we make sure the very children we teach know that their voice is needed for a better future?
Let them speak.
While it sounds so simple for many of us, it is not. Afterall, faced with curriculum deadlines, content standards, and all of the things we need to do, there are times that we forget that teaching is not meant to be a performance of one, but a chorus of many. In fact, research indicates that teachers speak more than 60-75 % of the time. That leaves very little time for those we teach to find their own voice. So monitor your own. Ask a question and step back or better yet, ask the students to ask the questions and guide them along the way. This doesn’t start as they get older, this starts as they enter school.
Teach them to question.
Questioning is one of the single most powerful skills we can pass on to students. And yes that also means questioning us. Provide opportunities for them to question what they see, let them know that they should be questioning what they are learning, and show them through example that it is fine to question you, the authority in the room. I would rather have students who dare to speak than those who remain silent. We discuss how to question authority with respect, but also that you should fight for what you believe in.
Make room for debate.
I know it is scary at times to be a teacher in a heated political climate, at times, I feel like whatever I say feels like a loaded question, and yet, we must find ways to bring hard topics into our classrooms and then step aside. I tell my students that I am not here to shape their opinion, I am here to give them an opportunity to shape their own. They know our discussions are not about what I want them to believe but instead about them coming up with something to believe in and then fact-checking it. It is not enough to have an opinion, you must realize where it stems from.
Ask, “Now what?”
My wise friend, Dana Stachowiak, taught me to always ask, “Now what?” when I believe in something. She reminds me that forming an opinion is not the point, but doing something about it and continuing to question is. So when students write persuasive essays, when students discuss, when students uncover new information, ask them, “Now what?” What do you plan on doing with the information? What else do you need to learn? What can you do with this belief that you have?
Show them change.
I survey my students throughout the year about how I can be a better teacher. It is one of the best things I do. And yes, there are criticisms every single time I read the surveys, things I could do better. Things they would like to see me improve. And so I try when I can and we discuss the changes needed for the experience to be better for all of us, me included. When students see an adult, who does not have to listen to their voice because let’s face it nothing says we have to, actually listen to them and implement change because of them, they see the power of having a voice in the first place. This is vital for them to believe that they can be changemakers.
Support don’t punish.
I have been appalled at the districts that are telling students they will be suspended if they protest. Have we forgotten that this very nation was founded on the notion of protest and speaking up when we saw a wrong? Why we would tell students, who we teach about inequality, about courage, about sacrifice, that they cannot exercise their right to free speech, blows my mind. So instead of saying no, find a way to support. Show them where they can go to protest, show them how to do it safely. Step up as leaders of this future generation rather than the oppressive older generation, a cliché that has been held on to for too many years.
Create deeper learning opportunities for all.
Last weekend, I had the amazing opportunity to read the final draft of Sara Ahmed’s book Being the Change, a book being released on March 29th by Heinemann. Sara’s book ignited my already present fire to create further opportunities for students to dissect their own identity, to push their own knowledge boundaries, and find a way to bring the world in as part of our curriculum. This book is a game changer and provides a blueprint for us to do more with what we already do. Centering on student identity and not the teacher’s this book gives us the needed tools to create classrooms that are focused on social comprehension without dictating a political path. I am thankful that this book will be out in the world soon for all of us.
Don’t forget our purpose.
Education is to better our world, not to create better test takers. Education is to create a new generation of literate adults who question the world around them, who uncover information, who seek to right the wrongs of this world. To help children become complex thinkers and problem solvers, who strive to make this world a better place not just for themselves but for a society as a whole. That is not a political sentiment, but a humanitarian one. We must continue to do better. We are teachers of the children who will write the history of this world, so what type of history would we like them to create? One that echoes the dystopian novels that sit in our classrooms, or one that continues to focus on better for all?
For the past weeks, my students have looked to me and the other adults in our building for answers more than ever before. I have been asked how I will keep them safe, what our plan is in case the unthinkable happens, how I feel about what is going on in the world. I have done the best I can to share my own thoughts without scaring them, without forcing my opinion on them. And yet, I keep thinking about all of the things we already do; how our job as educators was never to be the sole voice in the classroom, but instead to help our students raise theirs. So how do I plan on keeping them safe, by making sure that they know they can change the world.
How do we adequately describe what it means to pick up the pieces and keep on teaching, even though it seems America has gone mad? Even though some people, including our president, are saying that we should be armed in order to protect the children we teach?
How do I write about all of the seemingly trivial components of what it means to be a teacher, what it means to teach, when once again we have been reminded we may be the single difference between a child feeling loved and a child feeling the need to kill.
Where I live we have had a threat in a school in our county every day in the past week. It doesn’t even feel surprising anymore.
And yet, as we walk through our doors our days continue to unfold. We slide back into the same old routines, but with a heightened sense of awareness. We truly look at our students, look them in the eyes, and we say thank you when they leave us for the hour, for the day.
We say good morning and mean it.
Ask them about their day.
Sit next to them as we re-teach, explain, and help where we can.
We look for warning signs but we also look for the good. We notice the good. We point out the good.
On my computer hangs a post-it note that says, “Which child are you giving up on?” Inspired by a conversation Lisa Meade shared, this simple note is my constant reminder that in our school we don’t give up on anyone. That in our school, we seek out all of the kids. That in our school we don’t want invisible children. That when we think we have done enough, there is always more to do.
That in our room, their presence matters. That they came, despite the obstacles that may have been in their way. That in this room, their presence makes my day better even if they are not sure others care.
So when we pick up the pieces after yet another mass shooting, we do so with care. We renew our vow to continue to be focused on kids first, teaching second. To take the time to truly get to know the kids we teach, not because someone told us we had to, but because we cannot imagine not knowing them. And we use the fear that may be following us into our rooms as a way to drive us all toward goodness.
We remember that because we teach we get to be a part of the conversation of what happens next.
That because we teach we get a choice to either focus on kindness, empathy, understanding and acceptance, rather than hate and mistrust.
That because we teach we get to have a say in how students view the world.
That because we teach we get to tell a child every single day that they matter.
That we are glad they are with us.
That we are proud of them and that they should be proud of themselves.
We remember that because we teach we have the power to change the future.
And that is how we pick up the fragile pieces once more and carry on toward a future that involves the very heart of this country.
Today, as too many times before, I walked into our classroom and tried to figure out what we could use to protect ourselves, what we could use to barricade the door, what I would need to help my students escape through our second story window. How we would survive in the case of an active shooter.
As colleagues drifted in we discussed the news; another school shooter, more lives lost, more teachers portrayed as heroes as they shielded students with the only thing they had; their bodies. And we looked around our rooms and we shuddered at the realization that really the only thing we can hope for is a lucky break if someone decides that our school is the next target. That the only thing we can cling our hope on is that if a shooter was to enter through the front entry, then we perhaps would have enough time to get out simply because of our location in our school.
And as I watched students come to class, ready for another day to learn, I was surprised at their lack of talk about it. One child finally brought it up, telling me she had seen the videos recorded from Snapchat. How it was hard to watch and I wondered; have our students become used to this new reality where we don’t do just fire drills but also active shooter drills? Where my 5-year-old kids come home to tell me how they sat really quiet in the corner so that the bad man wouldn’t hear them. How is this our nation?
Last night I sent out the following tweet and all day today the replies have poured in. Comments from fellow teachers telling me what they have for weapons in the classroom (nuts and bolt, fire extinguishers, bats, golf clubs or anything else they can get their hands on), how they plan on getting out, what they plan to use to barricade the door. How their doors lock from the outside, how their kids won’t know how to stay quiet and hide. How they know as special ed teachers that they more than likely will have to shield their kids because they may not be able to get out. How they are training their students to run around the gunman in case they are taken out. How they cannot fathom how this is our reality in the United States, because, guess what, it is not the reality for teachers anywhere else in the world, not at this scale.
My husband told me he would be purchasing a rope ladder and window hammer for me to keep in my classroom. That he would think of something to send in with me in case I needed to defend myself but I couldn’t help but think; what good will a bat do against an AR-15?
We are working in a public school system where our funding is being depleted and our class sizes are going up, leaving us less time to connect with each child, leaving us less time to really get to know the kids we have in our care. We live in a country where mental health services are being slashed and those who desperately need more care, cannot get it. We are living in a country where protecting gun rights is more important than protecting human lives. And we are told to not make this political but how can we not when it seems the only response we have in America is to send thoughts and prayers?
And so this morning, as I entered our classroom, I realized, again, that as much as I want to live to be old, I would also shield my students with my body if I had to. That I would stand in the line of fire if I need to because that is now also a part of my responsibility. That my students lives matter more than my own.
So today I put on a brave face in front of my students, even if every little out-of-the-ordinary noise made me flinch. Even if I thought about every student I have ever taught and whether I did enough for them to make sure they felt known, like they mattered, and not like they should come back for revenge. And I was scared.
I am scared.
Because I don’t want to be a hero.
I want to be alive.
I want to see my own children grow up.
I want to seethem graduate.
Fall in love.
I want to be a grandmother some day.
Be called mormor and tell stories of back in the day.
I want to retire and hold hands with my husband by the ocean someday while the world passes us slowly by.
To take my last breath surrounded by my family, not in my classroom.
But I may not get that dream if we don’t change the way our laws work.
How many more children will have to die for us to do something?
For a long time, my husband and I have had a running joke about how I didn’t know I was beautiful until I met him. After all, if I were to believe many young adults or even adult books featuring female characters, this was the ideal. The way I was supposed to feel, as the ugly duckling who doesn’t become a swan until a boy meets her and shows her her true beauty. In fact, as of late, it has become so pervasive within YA that I am frankly surprised when it doesn’t happen. How dare a girl have self-esteem without it being spoonfed to her by a love interest?
And for a while there, it was funny; how could so many stories published by many different writers share these same stereotypical plot lines? How could so many young girls not know their own value until someone, typically their love interest, informs them otherwise? How many times can a girl speak up and no one believes her, listens to her, or even takes her seriously? And don’t get me started on stories where girls repeatedly say no to cute boys, overly involved friends, or even adults who need them to do just one more thing only to be steamrolled or guilted into doing it otherwise. Sure, we laughed about it at my house, until I once more realized that for the young people reading these books, these stories are presented as “realistic fiction.” As the way the world should be, as the way things are.
When viewed through this lens, this is just straight scary.
And here’s the thing, we may not be the ones writing the stories, (and how these are repeatedly getting published once again shows a lack of concern for the portrayal of females within the publishing industry), but we are the ones that purchase them, that book talk them, that place them in our libraries as just another YA book and don’t even think about the message that these books may be sending to kids about how they really should be to be accepted. That’s on us.
And so these books, in their repetitive storytelling start to share a common message:
I didn’t know I was beautiful until he told me.
I said no, but he persuaded me otherwise.
I am weak but he made me strong.
I speak up for myself but no one listens or I am called a bitch for doing so.
I am a fierce female except for when it comes to men, then my emotions weaken me and I become indecisive and lost… (Looking at you Divergent…)
When we tell girls, or any kid for that matter, that they need to feel ugly for them to be truly beautiful, we are telling them that low self-esteem is a quality to strive for. When we repeatedly make the bitchy character the most beautiful kid in school, we teach kids that to be pretty means to be a horrible person. And don’t you dare think you have worth unless someone has told you so.
When we constantly make girls weak, who say no but then say yes a little bit later because after all, what is the big deal, then we are teaching boys to keep asking and girls to relent.
When we constantly show the girl who is traumatized being saved by a boy through his love then we are telling girls that they cannot save themselves.
And we wonder why we live in a culture that doesn’t believe the victims when they say #MeToo (and yes, ME TOO here).
As readers of these books. As teachers who book talk. As people who share book titles, we must do more when it comes to the portrayal of females or any gender child and the cliches of YA. It may not seem like a big deal but these are the books my students read to find out who they want to be. These are the books my students read to see how to navigate their social situations. And while I try to place only books that go past these stereotypes, I don’t always. They are there in our library being read and shared because the rest of the story may be good. And yet, what is unconsciously being submitted to all of my students who read these? And how am I counteracting it?
I read a lot of books. I also abandon a lot of books, leaving them unread and unrated, as I am not here to tell others of books that didn’t work for me. And yet, I wonder if I am doing others a disservice when I don’t speak up? When I don’t ask publishers to reconsider? When I don’t ask authors why they wrote it? Is it because we feel like others before us should have done so? Is it because we worry that we will come off as censoring? Yet, isn’t every book decision just that – a way to build our collection and not place in certain titles? And so that’s what I will ponder. What more can we do as readers when we see books once again perpetuate the female character as weak, as ugly, as needing to be saved, as needing to be persuaded? What more can we do as adults when we know how damaging these types of narratives being repeated can be? Do we just hope that our students will know better or do we start to raise our voices?
I, for one, am sick of holding my tongue.
I hope you have read Anne Ursu’s article describing sexual harassment within the kidlit industry, it has weighed heavily on my mind all weekend and this post is a direct result of that.
I also hope you read Jillian Heise’s post on consent, I saw the same problematic portrayal in the picture book she described and yet did not speak out but instead did not recommend or share the book. I am glad she did, I should have as well.
He told me that this year he wanted a friend. Just one.
That other kids didn’t like him.
That they made fun of him. That they were mean. That they went out of their way to make him feel less than.
That perhaps he had no reason to be alive because no one seemed to care whether he lived anyway.
I told him we did.
He told me that he wanted to be a writer. That he had all of these stories to share. To create. But that no one would care, no one would read them anyway.
So we told him to write. Write on your blog whatever you want. Share your story and I will amplify it for you. And so he did. He wrote about a prince and his mission. Asked me to please send it out. “Will anyone like it?”
So I did and they did. Teachers and students left comments urging him to write more. To not leave them waiting for the next installment. I approved every comment.
He came to me the very next day, “Did you see it, Mrs. Ripp? They really like me…I must write more.”
And for that moment he saw himself as a writer. As someone worth knowing. Not the child that others found strange, or angry, or unfit to be a friend to. A writer with words that mattered.
And so he wrote. And he believed that he, too, mattered.
She came to us wearing cat ears. Then a tail. A big jester’s hat.
Her laugh was loud but you didn’t it hear it much. After all, no one else seemed to get the jokes.
She would go on and on about games she played online. Filling our ears with Minecraft terms that I had no idea about. I saw the eye rolls from other kids. The ones who chose not to be at her table. The ones that whispered.
And we spoke about kindness as if the kids hadn’t heard it all before.
She asked if she could write whatever she wanted and we told her of course.
And so she wrote about Minecraft. The place where she felt like others got her. The place where she felt that she had value. Where others saw her as indispensable and not just as that weird girl.
And so she wrote, Minecraft fanfiction, I had trouble following it and yet her passion, her creativity marked her words. And so I shared, the least I could do, and the very next day she had 85 comments from kids around the world telling her to write more. To tell them more. Asking her to be their friend.
She would come up to me to tell me about her latest installment. About her newfound fans. She knew that at our school perhaps many wouldn’t see past the hat, the tail, the laugh, but online, she was something. I told her she was something to us as well.
At the end of the year, she wrote a speech detailing how friends found online were true friends. How sometimes you needed the online world to make you feel found. That she had found her community in the games she played, in the worlds she created. That she would have never felt as accepted, as valued, as she did online.
That technology meant that she was more than what those face-to-face saw her as.
We bring in technology thinking it will add the next level skills to our classrooms. That technology will help our teaching come alive, our curriculum have a deeper meaning. That it may “hook” the kids as if they are fish, keep them engaged, get them ready for the future.
And yes, those are valid reasons.
But the true power in technology is not just the readiness. The skills. The playing around with tools to create something impossible.
It is the power to be seen.
To not be alone.
To feel that in the world, someone values you. That someone out there gets you.
Our oldest daughter cemented her best friendship through Minecraft. They play together, side by side, and it drew them tighter together as Thea faced the bullies at her school.
When I think of technology, I don’t just see it as a tool. I see it as a way for kids to be seen. For kids to be found. For kids to not be alone. And for adults too.
Someone out there values us. Someone out there, who wonders whether they have worth, is waiting for all of us. Technology means we don’t have to be alone anymore.
Before this year I had never written about bullying from a parent’s perspective. There was never any need.
Before this year I had never had to take on the role of THAT parent. The one we all dread being. The one that wonders after every interaction how others took what they said, what they wrote, what they shared.
Before this year I had never had to tell my daughter that school was a safe place and not know whether it truly was for her.
Before this year.
But as they say life changes. And this year has been one of enormous highs and some very deep lows. Moments that I don’t wish on any parent, on any teacher either, and most of all not on any child.
And yet, as things seem to settle down a little for our oldest daughter from what has been a harrowing few months. As changes in her classroom roster, routines and even procedures for her fall into place, I can look back at the experience and perhaps release some of the breath we have seemingly been holding for the last few months, and hopefully, just hopefully, put something worthwhile into the world from this whole experience.
Because there are a few lessons that I have learned this year as a parent of a child who is bullied. There are a few things that I have learned that I wish I had already known before all of this. And so perhaps us, the adults, experiencing this awful situation can help others navigate through theirs a little bit easier. One can hope at least. So what do I wish I had known to do as my daughter was bullied?
I wish we would have known to raise our voice sooner.
For so many parents and caregivers we worry how we will be seen, how we will come across. The reputation we may get from repeatedly asking for support, for sending many emails, for calling as much as we need to. And so we wait and hope that within our waiting something will happen. I know now that that is often not the case and it is not from a lack of indifference from the school but simply because schools are overwhelmed, teachers are overwhelmed, the administration is overwhelmed. So if something is happening to your child don’t wait, bring it up right away. The bullying of our daughter started in September and we did not have a plan in place until December; four months of hurt and harm happened before we could get it to stop.
From an educator’s experience, I have learned that while something may not seem like bullying to us as adults, it may be bullying to a child. Especially when it is a repeated small maneuver that is persistent. Something like always taking someone’s pencil may not seem like a big deal, but when it is done day in and day out it leaves a mark. I wish I would have known to ask deeper questions in the past when students had reported transgressions like these.
I wish we would have known to be louder.
Going back to being worried about how we came across, we waited a long time between emails or phone calls. We were somewhat direct but not forceful. We were nice, in the worst kind of ways, when we should have been yelling. When we should have continued to reach out until we got the response we needed, rather than wait days and sometimes weeks before we heard anything.
From an educator’s perspective, I am reminded of how vital it is to partner with those at home. That even if we have a completely different perspective on a situation the least we can do is make contact back. I think every educator whether in the classroom or not should follow the 48-hour rule, even if it is just to say that you are looking into things.
I wish we would have known to involve others sooner.
We didn’t get much of a plan set in place until we went up to the district level. Again, not because of lack of care, but because the school itself had so many things they needed to solve that not a lot of priority was given to our situation. After waiting a long time, it was at the gentle encouragement of a friend and colleague that we went higher in the chain and the results were immediate. This is when things started to change and at a rapid pace. Had we not done this, I wonder whether anything would have changed. This also goes for involving a lawyer or police if needed.
From an educator’s perspective, I am reminded that we are not alone in all of this and even if we think we have a situation solved or under control that involving others that can help us is always a good thing. This is not a sign of being weak as an educator but of strength.
I wish we would have documented from the beginning.
You think that when your child is being bullied that you will remember every instance, every kick, push, taunt, shove or aggressive slight toward her, but the truth is; it overwhelms you as a parent, just as it overwhelms your child. You send off so many reports that it gets hard to keep the timeline and names straight. I wish we had written things down from the start, or even just made a note about it. I know hindsight is twenty-twenty and we didn’t know that this would be repeated behavior, and yet, I would advise anyone to just jot something down when it happens just in case and then hope you never need it for anything.
From an educator’s perspective, I think I will now be jotting down things too to help those at home with a paper trail. It not only helps see patterns that we may otherwise be missing but may also help is realizing the seriousness of a situation sooner. We have to remember that it is never us versus those at home but that we are a partnership.
I wish we would have asked for counseling sooner.
As we learn more about how trauma shapes our brain, you would think that as a teacher, I would recognize the way my own daughter’s brain was being shaped by these experiences. And yet, when you are in an active bullying experience, it is hard to think about the later when all you are worried about is the now. Yet, now that we have cautiously crossed into the later, we see the ways this experience has changed our daughter. Yes, she is resilient and strong, but she is also wary of others and often assumes the worst rather than the best. She worries that the situation will happen again, that it is not truly over, she is not sure that school will ever be a safe place for her again. Do you know how hard it is to hear this from a kid who we have tried so hard to get to believe in school? She now has a trusted adult who checks in with every morning but that should have happened much sooner. We should have demanded it, but we didn’t think that far ahead. I have learned that just because your child is no longer being bullied that the damage is done. It is there. And it is up to us to work through it.
From an educator’s perspective, I am reminded of just how powerful it is to have one trusted adult. An adult that hears you, that is not too busy, that will listen and help as needed. There were times my daughter did not feel that anyone was listening even if they were, this made her feel even more unsafe.
I wish we would have known to teach our child to deal with indifference.
Yes, there were two girls who viciously targeted our daughter, but there were also many who idly stood by. Who didn’t see it or didn’t stop it. Who probably felt powerless or weren’t interested in getting involved. And I think, my kids would react in the same manner, even if I am trying to raise them to speak out. For how long has our bullying instruction been focused on standing up, when it is perhaps not just that we need, but instead we need for other kids to care and to show that they care. When I speak to my students about why they don’t stand up to bullies, they say it is because they are scared and I get that. So how about we also teach them to care about the victim? To make sure that the victim feels included at lunch? At birthday parties? On the bus and in class? How about we tell our kids that it is not just about being nice on the surface but taking an interest in others, especially those viewed as outcasts or who are victims of another child’s wrath that will make the most significance to a victim of bullying.
Just this weekend I found a note that my daughter had kept from a friend. It said that the friend was sorry one of the girls had called her ugly and that she wanted her to know she was beautiful both on the inside and on the outside. My daughter kept that note because it meant more than anything we could have said. Just like having the one friend will make the biggest difference to a child who is a victim of bullying. I think indifference from others can hurt more in the long run than hatred, that has been a tough lesson to learn.
And so our job as parents is to raise our children to care more. To go out of their way to include others. To not tell them it is okay to just be nice but not be friends. Instead show them by example what it means to include others, to make friends, to stand up for others, after all, we are our children’s greatest teachers.
From an educator’s perspective, this is something we have been working on every year. Lessons where we use picture books about loneliness, reflecting with students on loneliness and whether they feel seen or not, and also asking them to reflect on who they are as human beings and how they treat those who they do not view as friends are part of what we do. It is not enough, but it is a start.
I wish we would have found a way to keep our daughter safe.
Every day, my husband and I wondered what else we could do. What else was there to do for her to keep her safe at school? How else could we protect her, and yet, our answers were so limited. That is one of the hardest parts of being a parent of a bullied child; how little you can actually do. How much you place your trust in the school that they go to. How much you hope that today is the day that the bullying stops. That today is the day that the plan starts to work. And yet, we felt powerless because in many ways we were and that needs to change, not just for us but for the many parents and caregivers that feel equally powerless. How can we, as educators in our schools, help the parents and the victims actually trust us again. I don’t have the answer yet but I hope that one day I do.
We never thought we would be the parents of a child who was bullied. After all, when we look at our daughter we see light. We see passion. We see creativity, joy, happiness and a little bit of sass. We never saw those things that other kids decided to see and we never will. We thought we knew how to protect her, how to navigate the system if we ever needed to and now we know that perhaps because of how we knew the system we did not do enough early on. We know that Thea will be okay, she is one of the lucky ones, but we also know that we have a long road ahead. That there are many words and actions she will never forget no matter how many great memories she has instead. The tears still come for me, how can they not? And yet, all I have to do is look at my daughter, the child we tried to have for more than three years, to let me know that I , too, can be strong. Because that is what Thea is. Strong, powerful, and so determined to be something amazing. What she just doesn’t believe quite yet is that she already is. She is amazing, and no one will ever be allowed to try to take that away from her again.
I was asked this morning on Twitter how we move students beyond wanting hand-picked recommendations every time they book shop. How do they move beyond needing someone, typically, the adult or trusted reading role model to help them find the next book to read?
The truth is there is no simple answer, however, there are things that we can do starting on our very first day that starts this process of independent book selection that will last beyond our classroom experience. And while it certainly starts on the first day of school, there is no “too late” for this to be implemented. These ideas make a difference no matter when, so it is not too late (nor too early) to start working toward student independence in self-selecting texts. So where do we start?
We build our libraries, both whole school and classroom libraries.
In fact, we need to become advocates for our school library and our certified librarians to make sure that everyone knows just how much they matter to our school and to our reading lives. (If you need to see research on the importance of school librarians, here is a great place to start). And then we build our own classroom libraries as well, filling them with a wide representation of topics, readability and format that fits all of our readers and not just a few.
In fact, we must bring classroom libraries into every classroom so that children can see that reading is something that can happen in any subject area and not just English. While supporting classroom libraries and school libraries may seem costly, they make a difference, in fact, Morrow and Neumann both report that children read 50-60% more in classrooms with libraries in them than those without. And we must think of the books that we surround our students with asking ourselves not just WHO is represented, but HOW are they represented and also who is NOT represented? Students must be able to find themselves but also see others in the very books we place in front of them.
We carefully craft our book displays.
I was at my public library yesterday, a beautiful building that has a dedicated library staff, and yet their teen section is bland and boring. Every time I go there, I wonder why? Why not pull books and put them on display? Why not use the power of visual representation to pull our readers in? Why not show off the hottest new reads and help kids find the books they may not know they want to read? SO in our classroom, the displays are always changing. The books facing out rotate through. Our book tree where students and I showcase our favorite books is always being reworked. Books surround us because they need to be staring at us, calling to us at all times. And I place books knowing where they will catch the eyes of students so that they want to grab them. Not in haste, but carefully so that students feel the urge to read.
We have a to-be-read list.
This simple list in our reader’s notebook is our someday list to quote Nancie Atwell. The books that perhaps we want to try reading. The books we are enticed to read but may not have time to read just yet. The book list is always growing and it is a must for all students to have it in some form, whether on paper or on their device. Whenever a child book shops, I ask them to pull out their to-be-read list so that it becomes a habit. Whenever a book talk happens, I ask them to pull out their to-be-read list so that they remember they have it. We discuss them, we share them, and we remember that they should be filled with maybe books because they know that some of those books they will abandon. This list is also sent home with students on the last day of school physically, and an image of it is emailed home or shared in some other way.
We book talk books almost every day.
I start every single day with 10 minutes of independent reading unless we are in book clubs where the time comes later in the period. After this sacred ten minutes, it is time for a book talk, first by me and then by others. I keep my book talk short and sweet, holding up the book and showcasing an image of the cover behind me so that students can write down the title. If it is a student doing a book talk I quickly find the cover to project behind them as well. I remind students to write the title down if they are enticed by it, otherwise, many will forget to do this simple step.
When students do book talks, we either do it on the fly, asking simply if someone has a book they want to recommend or I have them fill out a notecard with a 30-second book talk and then give them their notecard when it is their time to recommend. I will have the book cover images ready to project as well.
We do lessons on how to book shop.
One of the first lessons I do in the year is how to book shop, while this may seem crazy, I teach 12-year-olds after all, I have found it to be a necessary reminder. Kids will tell you they know how to bookshop but then they simply go through the motions, not actually looking at the books or even finding any they want to read. So we break it down into a whole lesson, described more in detail here so that students know what I am expecting and are also reminded of what they should do while browsing books. Before we head to our school library every other week, they are also reminded of how to book shop down there, transferring their skills to a different environment as practice, because this is what they need to do once they leave us.
We just say no.
Many of my students would rather I book shop with them at all times, and while I will gladly support this in the beginning of the year, as the year progresses I pull back that support. I tell them they have to book shop on their own, show me their pile, and then I can certainly help out after. While it depends on the child, some get the idea pretty quickly and develop that independence, while others need repeated experiences. While I feel bad telling a child “No,” I also see the necessity of it; if we never say no, they will never stop asking, because, let’s face it, it is much easier just to ask an adult than do the work themselves. We have to teach children to not be helpless in our classrooms, and that includes when they select their next book. If we never give them the opportunity to try to figure it out themselves then they will not have grown like they should have.
We dive into their reading identity.
If a child does not know how to self-select a text, independent of Lexile, levels, or other outside systems, then they do not know themselves as a reader. So this becomes our mission throughout the year; having students reflect on who they are as a reader and how they create successful reading experiences for themselves. After all, as an adult reader, this is how I keep reading; I am in tune with what I am in the mood to read. This is what I describe a lot more in detail in chapters 4 and 5 of Passionate Readers. After all, if a child does not know how to create a successful reading experience for themselves while they are with us, then how will they do so once they leave us.
Throughout the year, we set meaningful reading goals, we reflect on how we are growing, and we decide what’s next for our journey. This ownership is vital for students to develop as readers and needs to be carefully cultivated throughout the year, not left to chance or happenstance.
We read every single day in class.
You may wonder what does actually reading have to do with selecting the book they are reading, but the answer is; everything! If we do not have students read in front of us, we will not see their reaction to the book they have chosen to read. We will not be there to notice when they start to skim the pages, pretend to read or shut the book completely. So if we want students to successfully self-select their texts then we need to also give them the time to actually try the text out with our guidance if needed. This also goes for those kids that consistently pick “Ok” books. These are the kids that are having decent reading experiences, but not amazing ones, these are the kids we end up often losing as readers because they never have incredible experiences and thus never get what the magic is all about.
How do I know how students are feeling about their books? I ask them in my quick reading check-ins during their independent reading time and we discuss how book abandonment as a major component of being a reader who knows themselves. Because the ten minutes (and I only do ten because I have 45 minutes altogether, if you have a longer period do more!), allows me time to see my students reading, I can often point out things they have not noticed themselves yet. It allows me a chance to connect with them, reader to reader and to individualize their instruction.
Our daughter looks at us with fire in her eyes, refusing the graphic novel I am holding toward her.
“What do you mean, it’s Friday, what does this have to do with anything? Of course, you are going to read, we always read.”
“Not on Friday’s…”
“Because my teacher tells me I don’t have to do any homework…”
And so my daughter, the reader, refused to read when I asked. Every weekend, every time. All because in her mind, reading was homework and if her teacher said they did not have to do any homework, then they did not have to do any reading. Have I ever shared that my daughter is as stubborn as me?
Now the funny thing is, I know that her teacher did not mean to not read. She had, instead, declared to the students that she did not want to give them homework for the weekend. A policy we loved. Our daughter just took it a step further, and no reading over the weekend became an unintended consequence of an otherwise marvelous policy.
And so the thing is, I find myself wondering about unintended consequences and how often do they play out in our classrooms and we just don’t see them? Or worse, we refuse to see them wrecking real havoc under the surface. We refuse to see how these little decisions we have made with the best of intentions, actually end up doing more harm than good and then hope that maybe our experiences are simply wrong and at some point, students will, surely, be fine?
Take reading logs for examples. I used to have students do reading logs with parent signatures, because I thought that’s what you did for reading homework. The reading logs gave me a quick way to see who read at home. To see their practice, or so I thought. I used them as a way to reward, to praise, to even separate those who did from those who did not. My intentions were noble; reading logs meant accountability and accountability meant more time spent reading. This had to surely be a good thing, and yet, what I had failed to notice was how reading logs meant reading for some was now something they measured in minutes, eager to shut the book once they got to the 20 minutes. Eager to fulfill their duty and not read until the next night required it. Reading logs now meant that if they didn’t have a signature then they surely must not have read, that perhaps parents were not as invested as I had first assumed they were. Reading logs meant I had “good” kids who followed the requirements and “bad” kids who bucked the system. Reading logs meant that our conversations changed; it wasn’t about loving reading, it was about why the reading log was not filled out or why they didn’t read more at home. It was about how I couldn’t just take their word for it, I had to have the proof, even if I thought some of those signatures didn’t really mean what they were supposed to mean.
I had never intended for this to happen, but it did. Unfrotunately, it took me several years of using them to understand the damage they were doing for some kids.
And that’s it.
How many other systems and procedures do we put in place without really examining the unintended consequences of these procedures? How often do we follow the system rather than question it simply because we are not sure where to even start with our questions? How often do we not pilot something but instead implement it as law, never to look back and examine whether it actually did more good than harm?
How often do we leave systems and procedures in place because they are not inherently, or glaringly, that bad, and so we may as well just leave them in place?
Our kids deserve more than this. They deserve for us to ponder. To question the very foundations that we put in place for our classrooms to function, for our schools to operate. They deserve for us to start questioning everything, even if it takes time. They deserve for us to realize that we are, indeed, just human and that as humans we sometimes make flawed decisions where we fail to see what we really have decided.
A constant factor of education is change, so why not initiate it ourselves? Why not start the line of questioning with the very practices we implement ourselves so that we may uncover the truth about how they really work? Why not examine our unintended consequences and do something about the things we already have in place, rather than always searching for the new?
I was recently asked if I could give a 2-minute answer to which reading program would be best for a district. While I was flummoxed at first; 2 minutes, that’s not enough time to discuss the needed components?! I quickly realized that I really don’t need even two minutes to answer this question, because here’s the thing…
If a program does not leave time for independent reading every day – don’t buy it.
If a program does not leave space for students to self-select their books independent of their level or Lexile at any time – don’t buy it.
If a program does not leave room for teacher’s to adapt it to the needs of their students – don’t buy it.
If a program tells you that students should sit in front of a computer every single day to be successful – don’t buy it.
If a program is based on short segments of texts, filled with lots and lots of things to do, with no room to build stamina or to go beyond the obvious in their answers – don’t buy it.
If a program dictates that every single teacher must follow every single lesson with fidelity or their students will not be successful – don’t buy it.
So what should we look for instead?
A program that supports choice, independent reading time, small group, one on one conferring, as well as lessons for ideas.
A program that focuses on the needs of the individual as much as the needs of the group.
A program that leaves teachers and students alike that reading and being a reader is something good.
A program that builds hope for all readers to be readers. That balances out between reading for skill and reading for pleasure. A program with an emphasis on developing reader identity as well as reader skill. A program that doesn’t kill the love of reading but instead bolsters it.
That is the program you should buy. And then don’t ever forget that fidelity should always remain to the students and not to the program itself to quote my Assistant Superintendent, Leslie Bergstrom.
And if you are not sure if that is the program you have; ask the very students who are forced to endure it. Ask the teachers who have to implement it. Ask the caregivers and parents who hear the stories. They will always tell you the answer if you are ready to hear it.
This morning I was asked what we do for our most vulnerable readers to help them be successful. As I took a moment to ponder this questions, I realized a big thing; what we do for the most vulnerable is also what we do for all of our readers.
We have fidelity to our students, not to our programs.
I work in a district that believes in fidelity to the students and not to the program. Think about that for a second. Oregon School District believes in staying true to what the children need and not what an outside purchased program, no matter how research-based it is, tells us what to do. We use components from incredible programs, but they do not dictate our decisions; our students do.
We place them with amazing teachers.
We give them the best teachers we have to work on interventions. These teachers know their research and use best practices. They are given longer books, they have choice, they do meaningful work. We make sure they work on stamina in books, not chopped up passages to just check their skills.
And we do not put them in front of computer programs. We need our students to read, to think, to work through a text and then come out on the other side with a deeper understanding. We need face-to-face interactions to gauge what they really know, not what a computer may think. There is no replacement for a qualified teacher and so every child deserves one, especially those who are not where we would hope they would be.
We have them surrounded by books.
We have a beautiful school library, staffed by a fully certified librarian, and we also promote classroom libraries. As Neumann researched, having a classroom library can increase reading up to 60% and so we believe in the power of great books within their reach at all times. As one student told me Friday, “Mrs. Ripp, I love that we have great books right here, I never have to go far to find my next read.”
I flinch a little whenever I hear the term “struggling readers.” As Donalyn Miller has taught me, there is little hope in that term. How about vulnerable? How about careful? How about developing? How about just readers? Our language promotes a growth mindset so we have to be aware of what our language does to shape their self-image. How do we speak about our readers when they are around or not around?
We cultivate patience.
It is really hard to not lose hope when you have implemented best practices (choice, time, books, and a reading community) and then see little results. And yet, sometimes we are working against years of a negative reading identity. We are working on catching up years of stalled reading experiences. We are working against unseen forces that derail us any chance they get. So we must be patient. Patient with the child who is trying. Patient as the teacher hoping for results. I have said it before and will say it again; sometimes we are just the tourniquet that stops the growth of the hatred of reading or the negative reading experiences, not the teacher that will see the actual seeds of change grow and bloom.
We balance our purchasing decisions.
While we may be going one to one with Chromebooks, my principal will also tell you that she always has money to purchase books. Our literacy coach asks us if we want more books because if we do then she will get us some. This speaks volumes because if a district is spending money on technology without spending money on books there is a serious imbalance in priorities. And if that is the case, a conversation needs to be started about what is more important?
So when I think of what we do for our vulnerable readers, I once again see the thread that runs through our entire school community; every child a reader, every single day. Every child deserves the best chance. Every child deserves the best teachers. The best experiences. The best, period.